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The Rhino Wars – the real situation and the solutions

2013 may be the critical turning point for the survival of the remaining rhinos on earth. Rhino horn poaching is close to resulting in more deaths than calves being born. Have we reached a tipping point to their survival, what is the true situation and what are the solutions?

The official death toll for rhinos killed in poaching incidents in 2012 was 668, including an estimated 30 critically endangered black rhinos. This figure was up from 448 in 2011, of which 19 were black rhino. This equates to almost two rhinos killed every day for 365 days.  By the 25th May 2013, the death toll had already reached 350, with most of the animals dying gruesome deaths.

Many solutions have been put forward to curb rhino poaching, but no single one has been successful.  A more integrated approach needs to be adopted for such a multifaceted problem to be addressed. There are over 400 ‘help save the rhino’ initiatives globally - most are well intentioned, but many are fraudulent.

As an Honorary Ranger for SANParks, I have spent many years exploring the potential solutions to saving this iconic species from extinction. I have seen many butchered rhino carcasses, and watched as rhinos tried to stand, their faces hacked to pieces as the M99 drug used by the poachers, wore off.

This is war. From rangers euthanaising calves because there was no hope for them, to a bull lying drowned in a dam from his wounds, to a poacher pleading for his life. Conservationists are at war too - lobbying their positions, competing between their different rhino conservation organizations and Governments. This divisiveness is undermining - We must unite in our efforts if we are going to win this war.

Currently, rhino conservation still relies heavily on external funding and is governed by politics. Any real solution must be ecologically and economically sustainable, based on renewable resources and self-funding. We have heard about poisoning the horn, dehorning, legalizing trade, fighting the poachers, education, sustainable hunting, etc.  Which of these solutions is truly viable?

An analysis of the potential solutions:

1.  Dehorning rhino in large reserves such as Kruger National Park (KNP)
The Kruger National Park is a massive 2 million hectares. I do not believe it is feasible to de-horn rhino in the KNP en masse for a number of reasons: the challenge and cost of tracking and darting the animals will be huge. I believe the money could be put to better use. Poachers are often active at night and may still kill dehorned animals.  It may only be feasible to dehorn rhino in strategic areas on the Parks boundary, which may force poachers deeper into the Park where they can be more easily detected and caught.

2.  Dehorning rhino in smaller reserves
Most private owners currently dehorn their rhino. While costly, they have little alternative. Private rhino owners no longer want to own the animals, as it has become a high risk, high cost business. Unless game owners are financially incentivized to own rhino, there is little hope for their survival on private land.

3.  Taking the fight to the poachers
The KNP has approximately 10, 000 rhinos, or 48% of the national total. The Park is almost 2 million hectares in extent, or 20, 000 square kilometers, with a 400km porous border with Mozambique. This is where most of the poaching is taking place. It is the epicenter of the rhino wars. 72% of all rhino poached in 2011 were in the KNP. A similar figure was posted for 2012, and already as at 24 April 2013, of the 249 rhino poached in South Africa, 180 have been in the KNP. That is already 72% for this year. I believe, with the current escalation, we will see well over 800 of these iconic animals butchered before the end of 2013.

KNP (and many other reserves) have decided that the best way to stop rhino poaching is to take the fight to the poachers. They have increased their ground forces and introduced intense clandestine paramilitary training for their rangers. Instead of waiting for the poachers to strike, rangers are seeking them out more successfully than before. Of the 60 arrests made in South Africa as at the end of March 2013, 36 were in the KNP.

I feel strongly that our rangers, who risk death in a confrontation with armed poachers, should be financially incentivized.  A field ranger is not highly paid. To expect him to risk his life to save a rhino when he has a family to feed is a big ask. Most are dedicated but some are open to temptation to collude with the enemy. Simple GPS co-ordinates from a cell phone, giving the location of a rhino to a poacher, may secure a significant sum of money for a struggling family.
These rangers deserve to be acknowledged. A financial incentive, media recognition and possibly a medal, could go a long way in raising the bar of taking the war to the poachers.

There are more willing poachers than there are rhino. The elements driving the rhino killings are highly organized crime syndicates who will stop at nothing to fuel the trade.

4.  Educating the end users of rhino horn
The largest demand for rhino horn is for traditional medicine in Asian countries such as Laos, Vietnam and China. I believe in the importance of education and public information campaigns explaining that rhino horn has no nutritional or medicinal value, but I do not believe that this will have any effect on even curbing the onslaught on our rhino before the last animal has dropped. Tradition is not something easily changed.

5.  Poisoning the horn
The Lion and Rhino Park near Krugersdorp introduced an ectoparasiticide in 2010. The rhino is anaesthetized and the horn is then treated with the formula by infusing it into the base of the rhino’s horn. A pressure capsule allows the formula to permeate upwards through the fibres of the horn, effectively ‘spoiling’ the horn. The ectoparisiticide is claimed to have adverse effects on a human that ingests the horn, such as stomach problems and severe headaches, yet apparently no negative effects on the rhino itself or any other wildlife that might come into contact with it.

Infusing the horns with ectoparasiticides, coupled with an indelible dye, may protect rhinos from poaching, but it is expensive. Treating the horn costs between R8, 000 and R12, 000 per rhino. The treatment lasts about four years, after which re-administration is necessary.

If trade in rhino horn is legalized, a poisoned horn, which could have earned conservation income, is wasted. Further, a poacher can not see if the horn is poisoned at night and will, in all likelihood, kill the animal anyhow.

6. Legalizing trade in rhino horn
In 1977 CITES placed a ban on ‘trade in rhino horn’. History has taught us many times that no ban has ever been a solution; it simply fuels the criminal financial system.  More importantly, it now appears that if we are to protect the species, legalizing trade seems to be the only sustainable solution.

“Keeping rhino has become extremely costly,” says Pelham Jones, chairman of the Private Rhino Owners Association.

“Our rhino are worth more dead than alive. It is costly to de-horn the animals, but we need to if we are to keep them safe”, he stresses. Pelham has also said that, “the actions of the anti trade lobby are actively aiding and abetting the poaching syndicates by ensuring there is no legal trade, thus keeping the black market open for the criminals to continue to exploit and profit by stripping South Africa’s national reserves and the private rhino owners who have invested over R1billion of their assets. All this with no regard to animal welfare or international conservation.”

Michael Eustace, a respected environmental economist and asset manager, says “the ban in trade in rhino horn has been a dismal failure, pushing the trade underground where it has thrived.

Southern Africa could supply the market with 676 horns a year from natural deaths alone. There are also legal stockpiles of over 5, 000 horns. Southern Africa could easily supply the market with 940 horns a year and increase this by 40 horns a year from natural deaths, provided poaching was controlled.

In addition, private farmers in South Africa could provide the equivalent of 1, 000 horns, or 4, 000kg a year, by cropping their horns. The horn re-grows at the rate of 0,8kg a year. In theory, Southern Africa could provide the market with 1, 940 horns a year, or more than twice the current demand.

To trade internationally, CITES needs to approve a change in the rules, and for that to happen, 66% of the 175 member countries, or 116 countries, need to vote in favor of the change”.

Many people believe that if the market is flooded with horn, it will create a bigger market because of cheaper prices. If trade is legalized, it needs to be carefully controlled and regulated. Furthermore, legalizing trade would bring billions of rands into the country, which could go back into conservation.

7. Conservation and hunting
The hunting industry brings approximately R8 billion into the South African economy annually. Furthermore, according to Adri Kitshoff, CEO of the Professional Hunters Association of South Africa, approximately R7million goes directly towards conservation projects, such as the South African Wildlife College.

Professor Wouter Van Hoven, Director for Wildlife Management, University of Pretoria, says: “In 1965, after colonialists decimated Africa’s game, the total number of wildlife remaining was estimated at 500, 000.”

“Trophy hunting was the kick-start to the private sector’s interest in conservation, namely game ranching. Since 1965 the numbers increased to an estimated 20, 000, 000 today. Hunting and trophy hunting is the biggest contributor to the abundance of wildlife in South Africa today.”
“If rhinos are available for sustainable trophy hunting, and more importantly, rhino horn commercial production without having to sacrifice any animals, their numbers will increase because many game ranchers will enter the rhino ranching market and invest in their protection,” he concludes.

Pelham Jones adds, “When one considers that approximately 0.5% of the rhino population, or around 100 animals, have been hunted annually by legitimate 'Trophy Hunters', bringing some R90 million back into conservation. The animals hunted were at the end of their lives and no longer reproductive. This sustainable utilization is one of only three economic pillars supporting 'Rhino Economics’, the other two being a tourism value and an ownership value which is associated with asset and population growth.”

8. Destroy the Syndicates
One other key to solving the rhino crime situation is for Government to invest heavily in destroying crime syndicates. This is just another way to look at reducing demand and ultimately introducing responsible trade that can benefit the range countries holistically.

In conclusion, think multiple solutions.
There is no such thing as a single solution to end rhino poaching; we will have to gather an arsenal of tools to form a successful strategy.
This article provides a broad overview of the rhino crisis and considers the most effective ways to stop the slaughter. We need a fundamental paradigm shift in our current failed rhino conservation strategy and a far more collaborative approach in seeking solutions.
We must make informed decisions, remove sentiment and take decisive action in helping win the rhino wars. It was Elie Wiesel who said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim”.

Notes to the Editor:
Braam Malherbe is an extreme adventurer and conservationist, Woolworths My Planet Ambassador, South Africa’s Eco-Warrior 2012, a 49M Ambassador, an Honorary SANPARKS Ranger and an Operation Smile Ambassador.
He has run the Great Wall of China, raced to the South Pole and run the entire coastline of South Africa, to promote his conservation and humanitarian causes. He’s also an international motivational speaker, youth developer, TV Presenter and author of the best seller “The Great Run” but most of all, he is a no-nonsense conservationist.
Braam is actively involved in the war on Rhino poaching through SANPARKS and the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT).
Visit www.braammalherbe.com for more information.
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